Thursday, March 25, 2010

Milford Sound

Departing Wanaka, we took a bus to Te Anau (try as I may, I cannot figure out what the correct pronunciation of Te Anau is; the guidebook says “Tee Uh-Now,” but most people -- even locals -- call it “Tay Ah-New”) which is a gateway to the Milford Sound.  On the bus, we met a couple of nice Brits who were living in Melbourne, Australia and happened to be staying at our hostel (the YHA Te Anau -- which was like a 1950s summer camp; ask me about the wrecked bathroom -- not suitable for a blog).  We had a good time with them; a lot of backpackers are younger than us, so we have little in common.  These guys were in our generation and actually had jobs, so we could relate better.

We had booked a day tour of the Milford Sound (which is actually a fjord, not a sound).  The Milford Sound is also the end point of the world-famous Milford Track.  Initially, we really wanted to hike the Milford Track, but access to the track has been monopolized.  It is a 4-day tramp, and if you want to stay in lodges and have your meals prepared for you, that’s about $2000 per person.  For four days.  It looked fabulous, but not budget-friendly.  The other option was “do-it-yourself,“ in which you stay in NZ Department of Conservation “huts” (a bunkhouse) and bring your own meals and water.  This option had two massive downsides: (1) you have to carry your own equipment; the addition of 30 pounds of camping equipment and food is not minor, especially when you‘re an out of shape desk jockey; and (2) I had no idea how much food or water we might use in 4 days, and I did not want to be fighting Violet -- Lord of the Flies style -- for the last granola bar.  So, we decided to do the Abel Tasman tramp you heard about earlier.  The day tour was probably not as wonderful as the hike, which I’ve heard nothing but raves about, but life is full of hard choices.

The day trip consisted of a scenic bus ride in a coach that made stops at various observation points, including a scenic meadow and a place called “Mirror Lakes.”  Here are some photos:

The above picture is from Mirror Lakes.  Notice the reflection?

On the way, we also saw some parrots called Kea.  Believe it or not, they are carnivorous.  They are also extremely mischievous.  They love to peck apart rubber, and have been known to pull all the rubber off of a parked car´s windows; tourists are cautioned against leaving vehicles or motorcycles in areas where Kea live, because they will do permanent damage.  They are also known to pull up tent pegs and then fly away with them, leaving them far from the poor campers´ tent.  Kea became a pest in NZ because they kill sheep to eat them.  According to our guide, they have even been known to work as a group, herding sheep and causing them to run off a mountain; the Kea then eat their remains at the bottom.  Here is a photo:

When we arrived at the sound, we took a boat out to explore the sound.  Here is our boat:

The tour of the sound was beautiful.  The biggest peak coming out of the water is called Mitre Peak.  In addition to the mountains, we also saw a lot of seals again.  There was even a baby seal.  Check out my photos:

After the boat ride, we boarded the bus back to Te Anau, where we spent a last night at the YHA before taking the bus to Queenstown, the so-called “Adventure Capital“ of New Zealand (that means it’s a place where lots of idiots jump off whatever heights they can find).

Monday, March 22, 2010

Rafting the Landsborough and Wanaka, New Zealand

Dear Readers,

Sorry it has taken me so long to update the blog. Frankly, internet access is not as easy in South America as it was in New Zealand. I’m going to spend some time today trying to play catch-up. For those who want a preview, we are now in Arequipa, Peru. We’re mostly relaxing, trying to adjust to the altitude here.

Ok, so the rafting trip . . .

I initially booked this rafting trip after speaking with the proprietor of the company about the kind of trip I wanted. In the past five years, I’ve taken four rafting trips on some pretty cool rivers (the Salmon in Idaho, the Illinois in Oregon, the Futaleufu in Patagonia). The Illinois and the Futualeufu (especially) have some major rapids. Violet, however, had never been rafting before. So, I wanted a trip that would have good rapids, but none of the “holy shit” rapids that would scare her too much. I also wanted a multi-day trip, so that we could spend some nights camping and really get away from civilization. So, we found a company on the web that did multi-day trips and I spoke with the guy who ran it, who goes by the name “Southy,” and picked a 3 day trip on the Landsborough River, which is in a mountainous area of the South Island.

Because the Landsborough was several hours’ drive from Christchurch, Southy picked V and I up at the Jailhouse 2 days before any actual rafting occurred. Southy is quite a character. He was very friendly, and we started chatting and laughing about rafting as we drove to the rafting company’s base in Peel Forest, New Zealand. About half an hour into the ride, Southy asks us, “How do you feel about dead animals?” My reply: “It depends what the activity is.” Turns out, Southy needed to stop off at a taxidermy shop (for some mysterious reason). So, we went to a taxidermy shop off the highway with Southy. Outside of it was a huge (let’s say about 3 feet) head of a wild boar, that had been recently preserved for posterity. Inside, were a lot more dead animals in various states of preservation, including more boar, and several deer. It was a bizarre beginning to this piece of our trip, to say the least.

After leaving the taxidermy shop, we drove for about 3 hours, through mostly farming country to Peel Forest. We had not arranged a place to sleep that night, since we’d been given rather sketchy information about where the hell we were going, but Southy said we could camp on his property. That was fine with us (we have sleeping bags). While we were driving, we received several calls from Nic, who was a coworker of Southy’s asking him to pick up various things for the dinner we would share. The main dish? Venison. The perfect post-taxidermist cuisine selection (seriously, it was really good venison).

We got to Southy’s ramshackle house in the middle of nowhere, where we met the guides for our trip (Nic, Slee, Maddy, and a really nice woman whose name I can't remember right now) and the other rafters (Chris the Swiss, Anna, and Maggie). We had a nice evening with them, and ended up sleeping on the floor in our sleeping bags. Unfortunately, there were somewhere near 9 million moths in Southy’s house, most of which were attracted to my large, round, moon-like face for most of the night. I didn’t sleep well, but I survived.

The next morning, we took off early for our long (7 hour) drive to a place where we would catch a helicopter to the river put-in (there are no roads to the point where you begin rafting, so everyone and everything that is going down the river has to be transported by helicopter). The ride was long, but the scenery was beautiful -- rugged mountain ranges and beautiful lakes. Finally, we came to a small town/resort area where we’d pick up the helicopter.

I had never been in a helicopter before, and I was a little apprehensive. So was V. We had some lunch and then waited for the helicopter to be ready to depart. Violet, Maggie, Anna, and I went first, with some of the gear. At first, the helicopter ride was a bit scary, but after a few minutes I really enjoyed it. It swooped between some mountains, following the river we’d be rafting for about 10 minutes, making a big almost-upside-down U-turn to drop us in our camp. The camp was pretty much already set up, with tents left set up for the various groups who would use it over the course of the season. As soon as we got there, it started raining. About 20 minutes after our arrival, the helicopter came back with the rest of the group and gear. We settled into camp, with the guides making us a very good lasagna and garlic bread dinner.

The next day, we got up, had a good breakfast and then had a briefing by the head guide, Nic, on safety and the commands he would use as we paddled. This is pretty standard for river trips. We then got in the boat and began our way down river (there was one paddle boat with the 5 guests and Nic, and another that held the two guides who were doing drills, and a third gear boat with just one guide (Slee) at the oars). We had a really great day of rafting. We started out with level 2 rapids, and then mostly did 3s. There were a few that were 4s, and one which we portaged around as too difficult to raft. There was not another soul in sight the whole day, just our group and the river and the mountains. I am happy to report that after 5 minutes of rafting, Violet announced that she was hooked and wanted to schedule another rafting trip as soon as possible. One of the reasons I get a kick out of rafting is that it is possible to see some really great natural beauty, have a lot of fun on wild rapids, and feel very engaged even if you are not a seasoned expert. Some things, like golf, can’t really be enjoyed without a lot of practice. Rafting is much more accessible. I have gone on some of the wildest water in the world, but I have only rafted 5 times. I highly recommend it to anyone with the slightest sense of adventure.

About 4 p.m., we made camp and had snacks. The guides prepared another great dinner of burgers and corn and home fries. We had a nice time chatting by the fire. We did get eaten alive by sandflies (on both nights). Sandflies are the scourge of New Zealand. Their bites itch for weeks and there were tons of them out to feast on us during the river trip. Even six weeks later, you can still see their marks on my ankles. Oh well, this is the price I pay for going outside.

The next day, we rafted downstream through pretty cruisy waters to the take-out point where our van had been left. We then drove about 3 hours to Wanaka, New Zealand, where Violet and I were to be dropped off. The drive was beautiful, more gorgeous mountains and crystal clear lakes. Wanaka is a beautiful little lakeside town where lots of tourists visit. We had reserved a private room with bath at a hostel there, where we chilled out for 3 days. We didn’t do much in Wanaka other than shower (for the first time in 3 days), wash our clothes, and use the internet. We did take a bike ride around the lake on one of the days. I have a few pictures from that day. This scenery is much like the scenery on the river.

P.S. There aren’t any pictures of the rafting trip because I left my camera in the car. Cameras and water do not mix, and most guides will tell you not to bring a camera or any other electronics on the river.

Christchurch, New Zealand

After leaving Kaikoura, we continued by train to Christchurch, New Zealand. The landscape was beautiful -- coastline receding into farmland.

We had planned to spend a few days in Christchurch, but the outfitter we had planned to go whitewater rafting with let us know they would need to pick us up a few days earlier than expected, so we really only had one day in Christchurch. This turned out not to be a problem, as we found we were able to see (or too poor to see) everything worth seeing in less than 24 hours.

It took us about 4 or 5-hours (by train) to get to Christchurch, where we disembarked and made our way to our backpackers. It was called “Jailhouse Accommodation,” and that’s exactly what it was: a defunct prison. Our room was a cell (though the bars had been replaced with a heavy iron door (or the door was always there, not sure)). The inside of the place looked like the prison from the movie “The Green Mile.“ While this was somewhat entertaining, it was also kind of creepy. Plus, this hostel was so remote from any services travelers might need, that we spent about 45 minutes walking to a grocery store, and another 45 back. This is quite far to walk when you’re hungry and mostly through an industrial area. Also, since it was after 5:30 p.m., everything was closed (in NZ, everything closes “late,” which means at 5:30 p.m.).

Anyhow, the next day, we walked from the prison through a beautiful park (forget the name). Christchurch is very British. They have a beautiful, though small, river called the Avon (I think) that winds through the city. There were little punts taking people for rides up and down the river. There’s also a nice cathedral. We wandered through the downtown in the morning, ate some lunch, and went shopping. (By the by, if you are in the market for clothes, do not go to NZ to buy them. Clothes there are ridiculously overpriced. Literally, $90NZ for a t-shirt. Seriously. This is not one of those times when I’m exaggerating, as I recognize I am wont to sometimes do. No, a T-shirt costs about $70US. A shirt-shirt will run you a good $120NZ. Re-donk-u-lous.) There were several street performers in the main square, whom I think were arriving for an international street busker festival that Christchurch hosts yearly which was to start in a few days’ time. In the later afternoon, we went back to the hostel to meet the owner of the rafting company for a three hour ride further inland. More on the ride and the rafting later.